What is the link between your brain, energy and performance?
When we make decisions or solve problems we use our prefrontal cortex, which sits behind our forehead. It was the last part of our brain to develop during human evolution. David Rock explains in his book ‘Your Brain At Work', that the prefrontal cortex enables your brain to do the following:
- Set goals, even simple ones like get out of bed and brush your teeth, as well as long term ones such as working towards running a marathon or planning a new sales strategy.
- Control impulses, i.e. not blurting out the first thing that is in your head, as well as not eating anything you want the whole time.
- Solve problems, from as simple as unjamming your printer to complex ones like running a business.
- Visualise the future or something you have not seen before.
- Be creative at work or tell a story to your children.
Without our prefrontal cortex we couldn't operate in the world, we would be on autopilot with no thought about what we were doing.
There are, however, limitations to the power of the frontal cortex. In order to perform effectively, the prefrontal cortex needs to have everything just so in order to work at its best. Rock quotes Amy Arnsten who says, “the prefrontal cortex is like the Goldilocks of the brain. It has to have everything just right or it doesn't function well.' But if you think about the modern working world, when we get to work and need to focus on something important like writing a proposal or preparing for a client meeting, it is easy to get distracted by all the emails in our inbox, take telephone calls, get interrupted by colleagues. When this happens the power of our prefrontal cortex starts to decrease with each new distraction, so that when we start to focus on that proposal or the meeting we are preparing for we are not firing on all cylinders. Therefore, our ability to perform effectively and efficiently starts to decrease.
‘If you correct your mind, the rest of your life will fall into place.'
David Rock uses the metaphor of actors on the stage of a small theatre to explain how the prefrontal cortex works. Notice he says ‘small' theatre, as the prefrontal cortex cannot deal with too many things at once on stage, as with every extra ‘actor', or task, it has to focus on, its performance starts to decrease. He explains as follows:
‘Once actors are on the stage of your attention there are lots of interesting things you can do with them…..
To understand a new idea, you have to put new actors on the stage and hold them there long enough to see how they connect to audience members…..
To make a decision, you have to hold actors on stage and compare them to one another, making value judgements…..
To recall information, meaning to bring a memory from the past back to mind, you bring an audience member up on stage. If that memory is old, it might be at the back of the audience, in the dark. It can take time and effort to find this audience member…..
To memorize information, you need to get actors off the stage and into the audience……
The process of inhibition, of keeping certain actors off the stage, requires a lot of effort. It is also central to effective functioning in life……
These five functions, understanding, deciding, recalling, memorizing, and inhibiting, make up the majority of conscious thought.'
You might be thinking now, ‘OK but what do I do to get the best from my prefrontal cortex and conscious thought?' or ‘Yes, but what does that mean to me at work today?'. Here are some of the actions I have been taking since reading David's book, and the increase in productivity when I do them is noticeable, and when I don't do them it is even more marked in terms of increase in disorganisation, pressure and decrease in performance.
When I have a task that I need to focus my brain on and really concentrate, or make decisions, or be creative, like writing this edition of Inspire or a proposal, then I do the following:
- I firstly check my emails to make sure there is nothing urgent to be dealt with, and I ignore all the other non-urgent emails, leaving them for later.
- I quit Outlook, so that I am not distracted by incoming emails.
- I timetable to look at my emails later on, so I know they won't be ignored completely.
- I clear my desk of other work, and my desktop, which is like clearing the stage of your prefrontal cortex theatre so I can focus on the task.
- I set a time slot for the task, so I know how long I want to focus on it and how long it is realistic for me to focus on it before I need a break and refreshments – see below about your brain and your energy levels.
- I ignore the phone wherever possible. If I am expecting a client to call, either I make sure I schedule my work around the call or have their number in my phone address book, and only take their call and leave all the rest to voicemail.
- I write down anything I need to remember for other projects or tasks so I can focus on the task in hand and not have to remember things for later.
- I clear my head, deal with any emotions that might cloud my judgement. Click here for more information on my book, which has a whole section on managing your mood.
- And I have just realised I also go to the loo!!! So I am not distracted by a full bladder, and I do think that physical discomfort can also be a distraction, so make sure your desk, chair are making you comfortable.
I can hear you saying, ‘Yes, but what if an important client calls or emails me?'. My answer to coaching clients who say this is, ‘What happens when you are in a meeting with a client, you don't stop to check your emails or answer calls from other clients'. See below for the benefits to your clients if you work like this.
‘It's not that some people have willpower and some don't. It's that some people are ready to change and others are not.'
James Gordon, M.D.
Your clients will benefit from you being more efficient, effective and less pressured in the following ways:
- Your quality of interactions with them, whether face to face, on the telephone or via email, a report or proposal will be enhanced because you will have given better quality brain power to the process.
- The solutions that you provide your client with, whatever your business, are likely to be better, because you are using your brain in a way to provide better understanding of their issues, better decision making and problem solving.
- You will be more efficient and effective and hit deadlines. I have some clients who come to me because they are either missing deadlines with their clients or only achieving them through working in the evenings or weekends, which doesn't benefit you or your client, as you are not having downtime to allow your brain or your body to rest.
Which leads me to the benefits for you:
- Being more productive at work leads to freer evenings and weekends to spend time with family, friends, exercising and doing fun things, which in turn will lead you to feel more energised back at work.
- You will feel less pressured and stressed, more relaxed, which will enhance your quality of life and the quality of your interactions with your colleagues, clients, family and friends!! See this previous Inspire for more information on the difference between stress and pressure.
- You might even get more positive feedback and referrals (if you run your own business or are in sales) because of the above points.
‘The power of man has grown in every sphere, except over himself.'
Sir Winston Churchill